No, this is not about mysterious signals coming from the senator-judges or from the parties’ counsels about where the impeachment trial is going. This is literally about sign language, and the “inset” or the small box that you see on the TV screen if you watch via ANC, showing an interpreter who translates the proceedings in sign language for the deaf. This is a triumph for Filipino deaf rights advocates, but they have a long journey ahead.
According to Dr. Liza Martinez, founder and director of the Philippine Deaf Resource Center, sign language insets appeared on Philippine TV for the first time on Channel 5 for the 2010 State of the Nation Address of President Aquino, his very first. That same channel has since sustained these pioneering insets in its early evening, one-hour news program. Another channel, ABS-CBN, has also used sign language insets, but only in their Central Visayas and Davao news broadcasts and not yet for programs that are broadcast nationwide.
There is now a pending bill before Congress, the Sign-language Insets for News Programs Act, that will make these insets mandatory. The existing law, the Magna Carta for Disabled Persons (Republic Act 7277), states the obligation rather softly: TV stations are “encouraged to provide a sign language inset or subtitles in at least one newscast program a day and special programs covering events of national significance.” It classifies “qualified interpreters [for] individuals with hearing impairments” as “auxiliary aids or services.”
The proposed sign-language insets act will convert the Magna Carta’s hortatory clause into a binding obligation. Sponsored by Reps. Neri Colmenares and Teddy Casiño (Bayan Muna Party-List), it will require sign-language TV news insets, noting that the inset is preferred over subtitles or captions because less than 5 percent of the reported 120,000 deaf Filipinos are literate. Last week, Doctor Martinez testified before a congressional committee that the networks should be given a choice between the inset and captions, hopefully to make it more acceptable to the networks and likewise enable them to adapt to the variable literacy levels of deaf people in the Philippines.
Over the years, I have heard of the travails of deaf Filipinos. There was that case about the deaf rape victim who testified about her ordeal through a sign-language interpreter. Her complaint was thrown out on the ground that it relied on hearsay evidence. Hearsay evidence from the rape victim herself? Yup, you got that right. The hearsay rule says: “A witness can testify only to those facts which he knows of his personal knowledge; that is, which are derived from his own perception.” So when the sign language interpreter spoke, the stupid prosecutor asked him: Did you actually witness the rape? These lawyers should be taught that signing is a language in itself, no different from Spanish or Chinese or Filipino. Going by this ridiculous episode, all testimony that has to be translated is intrinsically hearsay!
There was also the deaf man who was invited to Qatar for a training seminar precisely for Persons With Disabilities (PWDs). He was barred at Naia by an immigration officer (now under investigation) who questioned the authenticity of his trip because he was deaf. And finally there is that series of cases where deaf passengers were either barred from boarding or off-loaded even after they had boarded their planes.
The mandatory inset for sign language interpreters is merely the first step. The Supreme Court (assuming the Chief Justice takes kindly to the “signing”) should likewise require courts to provide sign language interpreters for deaf witnesses. Without such an order, deaf witnesses can testify only by hiring and paying for their own interpreters. That poses several problems.
First, there is the problem of cost. This is tantamount to putting a price tag on the truth. It would be naïve to think that that price tag wasn’t there from the outset; the cost of litigation goes way beyond the professional fees of the lawyers, and goes into the invisible costs and risks that the victim pays by deciding to go into battle. But one cost, i.e., sign language translation, must be borne by the state if it is to make good on the constitutional guarantee of equal treatment and the international obligation of non-discrimination against PWDs.
Second, there is the regulation of the sign language interpreters themselves. There is the issue of competence. Without a Supreme Court regulation, any Tom, Dick and Harry can purport to translate the “sign” testimony. There is also the issue of ethics. What if the Tom, Dick or Harry is so good he can improve the testimony or, worse, embellish or distort it? We need a system of accreditation to replace the open but loose market that exists today.
Third, the Supreme Court regulation should clear the way, once and for all, for the admissibility of sign language translations. The hearsay rule applies to the witness himself or herself, not to the interpreter who merely translates what the witness says into a language that the court can understand.
ANC’s sign language inset for impeachment trial is historic twice over, and apart from the Constitution and the laws, is just about the most public recognition that, in a trial on public accountability, the deaf Filipino must be heard.
(Today, Doctor Martinez presents the results of her study on Philippine cases of anti-deaf discrimination. It will be held at 4:30 p.m. at the UP College of Social Work & Community Development.)